After hearing a lot of praise for The Twelve Kingdoms, I was initially quite dubious that it deserved it. The anime begins with a typical premise right out of one of Studio Pierrot’s previous successes, Fushigi Yuugi: a young girl and her schoolmates are taken to a strange world that resembles feudal Japan or China, where only the mysterious powers they gain, and those of the mysterious handsome men around them, can save them. The art is nice but simple and flatly-coloured, and it doesn’t look like much will really distinguish this series.
By halfway, you’ll have realised just how sophisticated this series really is, how much richer the stories that come from novels tend to be. It’s not about a zany adventure in a new world, it’s about alienation and guilt and death and responsibility. There are sophisticated political machinations and working social systems. There are the usual epic battles and big speeches and some silly touches, but it all works, because it’s intricate and different enough to hold the interest. Some of the minor arcs – the black-haired Kirin, the side-stories featuring the Enki Rokuta – are more interesting than the main story of Sekishi-jou, but everything hangs together well, and I hope that Studio Pierrot eventually fulfil their promise of continuing the series when the novels have continued enough to enable them to do so.
Part of the pleasure of watching the series is that while the visuals aren’t up there with, say, the similarly-flavoured classical fantasy epic Seirei no Moribito, the anime is a feast for the ears. Not only is the music eclectic and in many places stunning, but a lot of my favourite seiyuu put in prominent performances here. Chief amongst these is Yamaguchi Kappei (L from Death Note, the title role from Inuyasha), who softens his Usopp voice, puts in a bit of Shinpachi’s mischievousness, and manages to sound irresistible as the boy in an obvious homoerotic partnership. Kugimiya Rie puts in another heart-meltingly adorable performance as Taiki in the side-story that forms the real heart of the story, while Kaneda Tomoko’s Chiyo-chan voice brings a lighter form of instant cute to scenes with the travelling theatre. Suzumura Kenichi’s distinctive voice, which made Lavi such a popular character in D.Gray-Man, makes a talking mouse possibly the most memorable and believable character in the story, while Shibata Hidekatsu, who always gets a part when a rumbling, powerful voice is needed (King Bradley in Hagaren, the 3rd Hokage in Naruto) had a great little cameo. A fantastic cast, necessary for a script with large amounts of static conversation.
A surprisingly adult and surprisingly satisfying fantasy series, a detailed painting of another world that outgrows its babies-grow-on-trees and tigers-can-fly daftness to become startlingly real. I’m eager for more.
(originally written 30.12.07)